Laura Meany knit her brow in concentration as she grabbed the hind leg of her remarkably patient and amiable llama, Teddy. Then she pulled a costume over the beast, meaning to transform his long neck and fluffy body into a July 4th fireworks display.
This was the last year the duo would strut their stuff in the Minnesota State Fair’s llama costume contest, one of the wackiest events around the animal barns, and Meany pulled out the stops.
“I want to go out with a bang,” she said Wednesday before donning a Lady Liberty costume and parading Teddy around the AgStar building in red, white and blue tinsel to loud cheers.
The contest serves as a standing-room-only opener for a more serious three-day competition for 4-H students and their llamas, which have been part of the State Fair since 2008.
“This is the best-kept secret at the fair apparently,” said one onlooker standing along the guardrail.
Dozens of 4-H students decked out their four-legged friends in fantastical fare. Among the contestants was a Santa Claus, a honeybee and an ice cream truck.
The costumes may be outlandish, but handling the llamas — which can weigh 300 to 450 pounds and grow as tall as 6 feet from head to hoof — requires skill.
Judges give high marks for costumes that are complicated and for llamas that work in tandem with their handlers.
“Llamas are a docile animal,” said Dan Whittaker, the llama show superintendent. “Why not put on a costume and see what they’ll do? Sure enough, it has become a show stopper.”
The popularity of the long-necked animals with big brown eyes has grown exponentially in recent years because of their easygoing disposition and furry coats, which can be spun into mittens or thick rugs.
This year, 61 students in the sixth grade and older will be judged for their ability to handle the animals in a show ring and obstacle course as well as for their knowledge of how they are bred and raised on farms.
Llamas, used for centuries to haul packs of supplies high into the Andes Mountains of South America, are cousins of camels, without the humps. They are more closely related to the smaller alpaca, but you can tell a llama by its larger banana-shaped ears.
They do spit, but it’s rarely aimed at humans, llama fans say. Usually llamas spit when they’re irritated with one another or working out the pecking order in the herd.
More common is hearing their high-pitched hum, which mama llamas use to sing to their babies and which could be heard intermittently in the 4-H barn as the llamas cooed at passersby.
Meany, 19, joined 4-H when she was a kindergartner, and made it a goal to show every 4-H livestock animal. Now a sophomore at Iowa State, she plans to major in agriculture in a career that would allow her to shape public policy or corporate efforts to expand sustainable farming.
At the Meany farm in Rose Creek, Minn., southeast of Austin, some of the 14 llamas and other animals are leased out for nothing more than the borrower’s commitment to do some chores. Llamas can cost $50 to $200, and the Meanys want to take away barriers to getting young people interested and involved in working with farm animals.
Meany’s grandmother, Jan Helgeson, makes the costumes for both Laura and her younger sister, Rachel.
Shortly before the contest began, family members and a few friends gathered to help Rachel get her llama pressed into a Big Bird costume while she worked on her Cookie Monster outfit. Laura jumped in quickly behind her.
“It’s no job for the timid,” quipped the girls’ mother, Lyn Meany.
In the end, the night belonged to the Meany girls. Rachel and her llama, Argentine Rizzoli, walked away with top honors in the intermediate age group.
Laura and Teddy — officially Theodore Chunky Chicken — ended their State Fair run as grand champions.